The Evolution Of Imagination

by stephenpalmersf

The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma

This is a particularly good book for artists of all types to read. The author is a jazz musician, and themes of improvisation – which jazz thrives on – run through the work. But this book is in the main a deep and often well thought out exploration of imagination and creativity, with much to say about the evolution of the modern human mind.

The book is split into six chapters dealing with: the mental models we carry in our minds, how our bodies may be the source of creativity especially in music, visual improvisation and creativity, tale-telling, the self, and finally a section on imagination in the political world. Lots of fascinating ideas are put forward, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of them – for instance the role of the body in kick-starting imagination via music and rhythm, which some experts think may have preceded language. The author is particularly good at presenting ideas of how the emotions serve as a foundation for most of what we think and do.

I do have some reservations. The author separates “hot cognition” (emotion or feelings based cognition rooted in the limbic brain) with “cold cognition” (rational or logical thought rooted in the neocortex). While the description of the triune brain is useful, Asma leans too much upon it to separate two modes of cognition that really are merged into one, with emphasis vaying according to situation. I also think his guess that full language emerged only 40,000 years ago is way off the mark – 150,000 to 200,000 years ago is much more likely.

All in all, a very thought-provoking read from somebody in an interesting position and with lots to say. The first four chapters are superb, but the chapter on self is a bit of a mess, and the final chapter, while interesting, seems to me to be an afterthought. So I’ll be giving this 4* on goodreads, but 3½* is nearer the mark.